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Ready for School, in Pleasantville

No Credit

Pleasantville, Tennessee, is the home of Reverend Michael Pearl. His teachings on corporal punishment have gained notoriety following the deaths of three children whose parents owned copies of his book.  Of course, Rev Pearl denies that he advocates child abuse. He sees spanking and whipping as acts of love, necessary to assure the spiritual health of the children who receive them.

People have strong feelings about spanking, pro and con.  In fact, many studies have been done, and the findings are mixed. The research does not consistently show that spanking causes problems.  On the other hand, there is also no evidence that it is beneficial, let alone necessary. Children who come from loving, organized homes tend to turn out OK, whether or not their parents believe in spanking.  For every child who was spanked and turned out great, there is another equally great child who was never spanked at all.

To put it another way, the children for whom the occasional spanking “works” (that is, they shape up, at least for a while) are the same children who would respond well to firm limits, non-violent consequences, praise for good behavior, and the natural drive to copy a beloved adult.  Many children, of course, don’t “learn their lesson” from getting spanked; in fact, their behavior gets worse.  These are often children who have ADHD, or various other learning and emotional problems, or who are simply stubborn. In the wrong families, this failure to respond puts them at risk. When the only solution to a failure of punishment is more punishment, correction easily becomes abuse.

In the religious language of Pleasantville, whippings are necessary to “beat the devil out of the child.”  But physical punishment rarely expels the devils of anger and callousness. More often, beatings are the way that these common demons make their way into children, and into the adults they become.  As the parents whip more and more, the children get angrier and angrier, or more and more terrified, or both. As they grow, they often begin to hit back; as teenagers, they sometimes turn to more violent expressions of rage; as parents, they often find that it makes perfect sense to spank or beat their children, “for their own good.”

Yet, it doesn’t take much to remind those parents of how it feels to have the devil beaten out of you. In my pediatric practice, I ask parents who embrace whipping if they can remember how it felt as a child to be beaten. When I ask, “Do you remember, when you were being whipped, how you felt toward your parents,” they usually reply, “Yes, I hated them.” I often don’t have to ask the next question, which is, “And is this how you want your child to feel about you?”

Physical abuse is clearly damaging; occasional spanking isn’t, but it isn’t necessary either. How does spanking affect school readiness?  One of the unintended lessons taught by spanking is that physical force rules the day. Once in school, a child may well apply the same lesson to physically weaker classmates, becoming a bully or a bully’s lieutenant.  A child whose behavior has been held in check by the fear of pain may simply ignore the usual school consequences, such as cards turned from yellow to red, or trips to the office. Once the child realizes that there is no boss with a whip in the school, limits melt away. Faced with frustration or another child’s disdain, the beaten child lacks the intellectual and emotional tools to handle the situation without violence. And anyhow, in the child’s world, hitting is what grownups do.

School means more than learning The Three Rs (Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic).  To succeed in school, children must also demonstrate two more: Respect and Restraint. Children who grow up obeying authority because it carries the threat of physical pain are unprepared to honor authority grounded in superior knowledge and wisdom; those who grow up restrained by fear are unprepared to be governed by courtesy and mutually-beneficial rules.

To some parents, I know, what I am saying will sound like permissiveness. But raising children without the use of pain and fear is not the same as raising them without limits. Children need to be trained, and at times, restrained.  What the followers of Reverend Pearl fail to understand is that the best of their children acquired their values in spite of the physical punishments they endured, not because of them.

Robert Needlman, M.D., F.A.A.P. is the co-founder of Reach Out and Read and has published studies on early literacy promotion. He is also a member of the Mom Congress Advisory Board.